With the news coming that Rob Ninkovich plans to retire after 11 NFL seasons, my immediate reaction was “will the defense be alright without him?” He was been a mainstay of the New England Patriots defense this decade, a decade in which they have reached three Super Bowls. But my secondary reaction falls more along the lines of “in Bill we trust” as much of a homer and a brainwashed, used to winning fanboy as that makes me sound. Patriots fans have this inherent belief in the organization and the head coach because of guys like Rob Ninkovich.
Ninkovich played at Joliet Junior College before transferring to Purdue University, and was picked in the 5th round of the 2006 NFL Draft. He bounced back and forth between the New Orleans Saints and Miami Dolphins, and even attempted to convert to the long snapper position as a means of football survival before being released by the Saints in 2009. He did not record his first NFL sack until he was with New England.
Ninkovich was one of those pleasant surprise Patriots. I knew nothing about him before he was here, and my first reaction to him was “Who is this white guy who kinda looks like Mike Vrabel wearing Vrabel’s old number? He’s pretty good.” Vrabel was a favorite of mine and many from the run of Super Bowls in the early 2000s, and was traded to the Kansas City Chiefs following the 2008 Bradyless Except For One Quarter Of One Game season. Ninkovich embodied Do Your Job.
Out of nowhere, Bill Belichick found a useful player where other teams could not, and found a younger, cheaper option to turn over an aging defensive unit. Rob Ninkovich is what the Patriots do, and moves like that are what has made them so consistently successful. For every Willie McGinest, Vince Wilfork, Dont’a Hightower, or Rob Gronkowski (who only fell to the second round because of very real injury concerns), there are a dozen humble beginnings guy, lower level prospects, and castoffs from lesser teams who find important roles with the Patriots from Tom Brady to Ninkovich to Wes Welker to Julian Edelman to Malcolm Butler to LeGarrette Blount to Alan Branch to Kyle Van Noy. Belichick is the master of filling out roster depth with competence at every position, and occasionally, that competence gets developed into greatness. Until he stops being able to do this, I have faith Bill Belichick can continue to do that. Call me a homer.
I can understand why Ninkovich would want to retire, even if I didn’t see it coming. He’s 33 years old, has injuries in his history, and plays a sport that maims everyone who plays it long enough. He can walk away now now with two Super Bowl rings and his head held high. Football is important, especially for guys who can play it at the highest level, but that it hardly the only important thing in life.
Unfortunately for Ninkovich, his second career as a rapper might already be over. He participated last week in Toucher & Rich’s Celebrity 98 Mile rap battle tournament, and got his butt kicked by Pete Frates in the court of online fan voting. Nobody can be good at everything.
This week, after losing the first two games of the Eastern Conference Finals to the Cleveland Cavaliers, and with neither of the two games at TD Garden being at all competitive, the Boston Celtics announced that their start point guard, Isaiah Thomas, was out for the season. Then, the Celtics won Game 3 in Cleveland, and without their best player. Naturally, the narrative of “are the Celtics better off without Isaiah?” swirled around the Boston Sports Media for days. It was maybe the dumbest take, but also quite possibly the most predictable take ever.
I get how we got here. This is Boston. There are two radio stations and two TV stations devoted to the local sports teams, and the Celtics are the only one of the four currently in the playoffs. In addition to being a primary talking point for hosts and callers alike on WEEI and The Sports Hub alike, you have writers at The Boston Globe and The Boston Herald, national outlets with Boston roots like Barstool Sports and The Ringer, and probably hundreds of aspiring and trying millennials like me all trying to be read and be heard. On some level, the “better off without” opinion had legs, not because it was valid, not because anyone really believed it, but because the infrastructure of the Boston Sports Media needed it to happen. There were too many hours in the day for no one to say it, so people couldn’t stop saying it.
This is also the market that produced Bill Simmons, author of The Ewing Theory, which attempts to explain the phenomenon where a team loses their superstar who has never won a title, and the complementary pieces surrounding that star step up in their absence, and the team outperforms expectations. It was a theory Simmons first developed with a friend when Patrick Ewing was in college, and they noticed his Georgetown teammates seemed to play better when he was on the bench in foul trouble, and the theory was tested at the professional level when Ewing got hurt in the 1999 NBA Playoffs, and without him, his New York Knicks reached the NBA Finals as the #8 seed in the Eastern Conference. The ultimate Ewing Theory case is that of Drew Bledsoe, whom Simmons mentioned as a possible Ewing Theory candidate in a 2001 column, months before the Patriots’ franchise quarterback was wrecked by Mo Lewis, replaced by a second year QB out of Michigan named Tom Brady, and so began the Pats’ transformation to downtrodden perennial punchline to the model franchise in North American professional sports.
Of course the very existence of the theory causes people to anticipate a case before anything actually happens. The most prominent example of that was also Boston-centric, when Rajon Rondo got hurt in 2013, and the Celtics rallied around the loss and made the playoffs anyway, and it inspired Simmons’ “Ewing Theory Revisited” column. But as fun as a theory like is to think about, the reality is always much more nuanced, a huge reason I have become disillusioned with the sports media culture I am simultaneously trying to break into. Not everything is a hot take, and trying to find the hot take in every story only lowers the common denominator, and brings everybody down. Yes, the Knicks advanced farther in a lower seed after Ewing got hurt, but the 1999 NBA season was strange, compressed, and shortened by a lockout. The Knicks were probably a better team than they were in the regular season, and could have made noise in the power vacuum that was the East after the dismantling of the Chicago Bulls, who had dominated the conference for the bulk of the 1990s. Also, there is no way the Knicks were better off in the Finals without Patrick Ewing, going up against a San Antonio Spurs team that had both Tim Duncan and David Robinson.
Obviously, the Celtics are not better off without Isaiah. The guy was awesome for them this season, was the biggest reason (aside from Toronto’s injuries and Cleveland’s indifference to regular season results) that the Celtics finished atop the East after 82 games, and there is no way they get past the Washington Wizards in the second round (let alone Chicago in the first) without him. The Celtics were on the road, forced to play a different lineup, and caught LeBron James on a rare off night. That’s all it was. One game where the depleted Celtics held LeBron to 11 points and still needed needed a last-second three by Avery Bradley to win. That should not and does not wipe away all the great work Isaiah Thomas did for the Celtics this year.
As idiotic as the narrative was this week, it does serve as a cynical preview for the way things will likely go in Boston with Isaiah Thomas going forward. It took one win on the road in a series the Celtics were never going to win for fans and media to turn on the most beloved player the Celtics have had since Larry Bird. What is going to happen when the Celtics draft another point guard? They have the top pick in the 2017 Draft, and the consensus top two prospects, Markelle Fultz of Washington and Lonzo Ball of UCLA, are both point guards? What happens if they sign Utah Jazz All-Star small forward Gordon Hayward to a max contract this summer? As great as Isaiah has been for the Celtics, next summer, he will be a free agent, and will the Celtics be willing to make a 29 year old point guard who is under six feet and is already showing wear and tear from the beating one takes as a short guy in a big guy’s league one of the highest paid players in the NBA? I have a feeling this will not end well.
It may be a different sport with very different roster sizes and pay structures, but I have a feeling the way the New England Patriots have handled cornerback and Super Bowl hero Malcolm Butler this offseason as something of a precursor to what could happen with IT and the Celtics. Butler became an instant household name when he made The Interception of the Century in the end zone against the Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl XLIX. Last offseason, the most important players on New England’s defense were Chandler Jones, Jamie Collins, Dont’a Hightower, and Butler, and all were set to be free agents at some level this offseason, and the team needed to address that. Jones was traded to the Arizona Cardinals last spring, Collins was traded to the Cleveland Browns in the middle of the season. Hightower signed an extension with the Patriots after the Super Bowl, but Butler’s future remains murky. First it seemed like Butler, a restricted free agent, would get traded to the New Orleans Saints, but the trade never happened. To further complicate things, the Patriots paid big money to free agent corner Stephon Gilmore without ever playing a down for New England, while Butler had established himself as one of the NFL’s best with the Pats, playing a key role on a team that has won two of the last three Super Bowls, but the Patriots hold all the cards, and they may very well make Malcolm wait for the big payday many fans and media members alike feel like he has already earned.
This is a similar situation to Isaiah with the Celtics. Thomas has been the good soldier, and consistently Boston’s best player since he arrived here on a very affordable contract (he is still playing on the four-year, $27 million deal he signed with the Phoenix Suns in 2014), while the team went out and paid Al Horford, tried to pay Kevin Durant, and may very well pay Gordon Hayward, all while being very deep at the point guard and possibly using yet another lottery pick on yet another point guard at next month’s draft. Isaiah made the Celtics respectable after the Nee Big Three left town, and just as he is playing his best basketball, the Celtics may already be figuring out his succession plan.
Both Thomas and Butler had to scratch and claw to become the players they became. While Thomas was the last pick of the 2011 NBA Draft, Butler went undrafted coming out of West Alabama. But Bill Belichick saw something in him, coached him up to be ready for the most pivotal moment of the most important game of the season, and was confident enough in his own coaching and Butler’s development to let Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner walk in free agency, confident that the Patriots’ secondary would be just fine. As much of a success story as Butler has been, Bill Belichick is confident in his ability to find the next Malcolm Butler if things between the player and the team go south, and Danny Ainge, like Belichick, is someone always thinking steps ahead.
Bill Belichick and Danny Ainge could not, as two professional sports executives who have been in Boston over a decade, carry themselves any more differently. Belichick is the gruff, ratty sweatshirt clad football coach who seems to go out of his way to be as terse with the media as possible, while Ainge is the clean-cut former NBA guard and MLB third baseman who regularly gets interviewed on the radio during the season. Ainge plays nice, but at his core, he’s a cold, calculating genius not unlike Belichick. Even when he’s tweeting praises of Isaiah, I have a hard time believing he isn’t weighing options should Isaiah not be in the Celtics’ long-term plans. Ainge built a team whose season lasted longer than any team other than the two teams everyone knew would be in the Finals the minute Durant announced he was going to Golden State last July, he did not have to give anything up at the trade deadline either of the last two years to get that far, and he has the ability to add a potentially franchise-altering player at the top of the draft. Like Belichick with Butler, Danny Ainge holds all the cards.
This turn of events says more about the over-reactionary nature of Boston Sports Media than it does about the future about the Celtics, but as predictable as it all was, it sheds some light on the things to come.
The Boston Celtics are playing their best basketball since the days of Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and (yes, even) Ray Allen. They currently sit second in the Eastern conference, tthree games behind the Cleveland Cavaliers, with Kevin Love out with an injury and LeBron James logging more minutes than he should at age 32, and Brad Stevens is going to coach the Eastern Conference All-Stars for the first time in his career. Perhaps most impressive about what they have done is that they are winning games with regularity in spite of their significant lack of health, with the longest tenured current Celtic Avery Bradley and 2016 free agent acquisition Al Horford both missing extended periods due to injury.
The success of the Celtics two and a half years removed from being in the draft lottery themselves (as opposed to living vicariously though the Brooklyn Nets’ miserable season) to being a top-five team in the NBA, despite Danny Ainge’s inability to find suitors in this decade’s version of the Allen and Garnett trades that the fan base so desperately wanted, is a testament to the coaching staff and the smaller moves Ainge has been able to make, but the biggest story for the Celtics has been the NBA’s smallest blossoming superstar.
Isaiah Thomas stands 5’9″, two inches shorter than I am, and my always unrealistic dream of playing on a school basketball team, let alone in the NBA ended around sixth grade when I realized I’d never be tall enough to make up for my inherent lack of skill. Despite a good college career (two time 1st Team All-Pac-10, two time Pac-10 Tournament MVP at Washington), Thomas was overlooked by NBA teams for his height, and he was taken with the 60th and final pick of the 2011 NBA Draft by the Sacramento Kings.
What is amazing about players taken in the 2nd round of the NBA Draft is that the ones that make it as stars, make it with a vengeance. Draymond Green fell to the second round, is now the NBA’s best defender, the most polarizing player on the NBA’s best team, and has developed this revisionist history around his draft status where several teams claim they were about to take him even though they all had a chance at him. Manu Ginobili being selected by the San Antonio Spurs with the 57th overall pick in 1999 and forging a Hall of Fame career out of obscurity in Argentina is an even greater component to the mystique and the greatness of Gregg Popovich and the Spurs than lucking into Tim Duncan at #1 in 1997.
In Isaiah’s case, though, the Kings do not get the credit for finding a diamond in the rough of a superstar because they let him go before his full potential was realized–same goes for the Phoenix Suns–but the chip on his shoulder is just as big as Draymond’s. Thanks to another great trade by Danny Ainge (a three team trade with Phoenix and Detroit where the Celtics gave away Marcus Thornton, Tayshaun Prince, and a late 2016 1st round pick, and came away with Gigi Datome, Jonas Jerebko, and IT), Thomas arrived in Boston at the 2015 trade deadline.
The Boston teams are in the midst of an under-six-feet renaissance between Julian Edelman (5’10”), Dion Lewis (5’8″), Malcolm Butler (5’11”), Danny Amendola (5’11”), Dustin Pedroia (5’9″), Mookie Betts (5’9″), Andrew Benintendi (5’10”), Jackie Bradley Jr. (5’10”), Brad Marchand (5’9″), and Torey Krug (5’9″), but Isaiah Thomas is the ultimate example because of the emphasis on height in who plays basketball at the professional level. While the Red Sox and Patriots gain acclaim for taking a chance on shorter outfield prospects and surrounding Tom Brady with a bunch of quick and shifty little guys, the Celtics have turned into a borderline contender built around a little guy in a big guy’s sport. This is almost unprecedented.
My two favorite basketball players who never played for the Celtics are Tim Duncan and Allen Iverson. I have written plenty about Duncan over the years, given that he was an active player this time last year, and he and Pop have been the Brady and Belichick of basketball. I wanted to write my ode to AI in September when he was enshrined in the Hall of Fame in September, but it was my last college semester, I was working full time, and my buddy Murf’s bachelor party was that same weekend. Life got in the way, but I am here now.
I attended my first Celtics game in 2001, weeks after Rick Pitino skipped town. The Philadelphia 76ers were in town in a year when they eventually reached the Finals and Iverson was the MVP. To this day, I believe he is the best athlete I have ever seen in person (Honorable mentions Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. The interesting thing is that Malkin actually stands out more than Crosby in person because of his size.). By my memory, he systematically picked apart a Celtics team that had Pierce and Antoine Walker and was finally showing signs of a competitive pulse at the start of the Jim O’Brien Era almost entirely by himself. It was amazing.
Iverson was officially listed at 6’0″, but even as a kid, I never really believed that number. AI was fearless and played like he was six inches taller than his actual height, making him one of the most intimidating people in the history of the NBA. He played hard and lived hard, and his career ended much more abruptly than many of his contemporaries as a result, but in his heyday, there were few players more compelling for someone flipping through the channels and stopping on a neutral site basketball game.
AI never won a title, and was labeled as a selfish player. Some of that was fair, but also a lot of that was the lack of quality talent that surrounded him in his prime. Unlike other elite point guards of his era like John Stockton, Gary Payton, and Steve Nash, AI never had a Karl Malone, or a Shawn Kemp, or a Dirk Nowitzki, or even an Amar’e Stoudemire to give the ball to. AI had Keith Van Horn and a past-his-prime Dikembe Mutombo. Iverson tried to do everything on offense by himself because that really was the best option in most years. This is the thing that has me worried about IT in Boston, but also not really. Sure, Al Horford is not the elite offensive threat that Karl Malone is. Sure, Kelly Olynyk is the victim of early Dirk comparisons. Sure, Jaylen Brown is an unproven rookie with some trouble finishing at the rim. But the Celtics are still building. Isaiah already does not have to do it all himself, even if he is consistently lighting it up in the fourth quarter, but they are still getting better.
What I really like about Isaiah Thomas the more I have learned about him is his self-awareness. In listening to recent podcasts where his sat down with Kevin O’Connor of The Ringer and Adrian Wojnarowski of The Vertical, he has it all in perspective. He was the last pick in the draft. He was 27 and on his third team by the time he became an All-Star, and he’s just now getting recognized as a legitimate superstar at 28. It’s like an actor or musician who did not achieve success or fame until after he or she learned how to be an adult. In the NBA, we are at the point where we are surprised when someone drafted as a teenager like Kevin Garnett or LeBron James turns into a well-adjusted human being. Isaiah spent his basketball career being doubted, being overlooked, and has proven people wrong at every turn, so now that he’s arrived, he’s not about to let it get to his head.
This week, Thomas broke a 45 year old Celtics franchise record set by the great John Havlicek of 40 consecutive games scoring 20 points or more, with game 41 being Boston’s last-minute loss to the Chicago Bulls the other night. IT is making his way into the history books in the NBA’s most storied franchise, but this story is still in its early stages.
I was prepared to write about the New England Patriots’ disappointing seventh trip to the Super Bowl in the Belichick and Brady Era. I was prepared to apologize to Patriots fans for the blog post I wrote about Matt Ryan a few weeks ago, when the not yet crowned MVP was going to face off against Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers in the NFC Championship game, and I used this opportunity to take some less than subtle jabs against Boston College football, New England’s most prominent college football program that nobody cares about unless they went there. I was prepared to write about how the Atlanta Falcons not only deserved to win because they played against the Patriots the way the Patriots normally play against everyone else, not making mistakes and making their opponent pay for any mistake they might make, but also because it was the will of the country, as comedians and fans all across social media framed this games as “Trump’s America vs. Black America.” The angle in which I was mentally approaching writing about Super Bowl LI changed more dramatically and more times than any other game I have ever written about including the Bruins thrilling Game 7 comeback against the Maple Leafs in 2013. The second half of this game threw superstition out the window, and it took a few days to fully process what happened.
I watched the game with my dad and my brother, and by the middle of the third quarter, the hope was that they could just make the score respectable, as it was 28-3 with the Patriots slowly driving down the field. This part of the game was not even tense anymore. That’s how far out of it the Patriots seemed to be. We instead turned to the 2017 season, talking about key free agents: Dont’a Hightower, Martellus Bennett, Logan Ryan, and Malcolm Butler topping that list. We talked about the possibility of trading backup quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, to load up on draft picks for Brady’s final years and focus on coaching up Jacoby Brissett.
I floated out the idea that Bill Simmons mentioned in a column a couple weeks ago about the possibility of Belichick trading Rob Gronkowski before Gronk’s body breaks down for good, and about the Belichick dream scenario of sending Gronk and Jimmy G both to the Cleveland Browns for the 2017 #1, #2, and a boatload of 3rd and 4th round picks. My dad had not heard that theory before, and said throughout the rest of the game and (spoiler alert) trophy presentation that he really hopes they keep Gronk. As someone who has spent money on exactly one athlete’s jersey for himself, and that athlete is Rob Gronkowski, I agreed, but am also well aware of Belichick’s history or trading or cutting star players a year too early rather than a year too late from Drew Bledsoe to Lawyer Milloy to Willie McGinest to Mike Vrablel to Richard Seymour to Randy Moss to Logan Mankins to Vince Wilfork. That strategy, while painful in the short term for sentimental fans like us, is undeniably a key part of why the Patriots have been so consistently competitive this century, so you take the good with the bad.
Next thing we knew, the Patriots were right back in it. Hightower had a key strip sack, the Patriots made up for a missed extra point and a botched onside kick by scoring two more touchdowns and making two straight two-point conversions. The Falcons defense was gassed, and their offense was cold, with the exception of Julio Jones, who was inexplicably only targeted four times in the games, catching it all four times, each time more impressive than the one before. Atlanta’s aggressive offensive strategy, allowing Ryan to get sacked for big losses without eating away enough at the play clock or the game clock certainly played into their demise, but when the narrative becomes solely that the Falcons choked, the level at which the Patriots executed gets lost.
On Hightower’s strip sack, for instance, he was able to get to Ryan because Atlanta running back Devonta Freeman blew his blocking assignment. On any given play in a football game there are 22 players with an assignment, and success or failure is determined not only by the obvious variables like the quality of the quarterback’s throw or the hand and footwork of the intended receiver, but also the defensive coverage assignments and offensive blocking assignments. In the second half down by a lot, the Patriots were still playing like they thought they could win, and Hightower, who is older than me by a month and has two BCS National Championship rings with Alabama and two Super Bowl rings with New England to show off as he heads into free agency, executed on every play waiting for someone on Atlanta to slip up, and capitalized when Freeman did.
It really was a tale of two halves, because in the first half, the Falcons were the ones taking advantage when the Patriots slipped up. The first quarter ended scoreless, but New England’s offense seemed to be moving the ball better than Atlanta’s, and were marching toward what looked like the first score of the game early in the second quarter when LeGarrette Blount fumbled the football, and the Falcons recovered, and quickly marched the other way to score. It was Atlanta that recorded a pick-six on Brady, and went up 21-3 at the half. The Falcons had adopted the DNA of the Patriots, which made sense considering the presence of longtime Belichick underlings Thomas Dimitroff and Scott Pioli in their front office. This was a new kind of Super Bowl experience for a Patriots fan who has seen his team play in the Super Bowl eight times since first grade. I had seen thrilling victories and devastating defeats, but never a blowout. I was not born yet when the Pats got destroyed by the iconic 1985 Chicago Bears team in Super Bowl XX, and every Patriots Super Bowl since had been at least competitive at the half, regardless of the eventual outcome. I honestly had not even considered the possibility of getting blown out by Atlanta, but could not help but respect the way they were doing it, as I would have been rooting for the Falcons in the Super Bowl against any other AFC team this year.
After trading possessions to start the third quarter, the Falcons scored another TD, making it 28-3, and I Facebook messaged my friend “At least Gaga was good” as if Lady Gaga’s halftime performance would be the only redeeming thing about this Super Bowl. It would be a solid hour before Hightower’s strip sack, and a little longer before it really felt like the Patriots were actually back in it, but that whole time, the Patriots were still executing like they had a chance to win, which is a credit to the players and the coaching staff. Peyton Manning would not have orchestrated a comeback like this, and I can say that with confidence because of the way he folded in 2014 in the Super Bowl against the Seahawks. Moments like this are what have always separated Tom Brady from his peers, and put him alone with Joe Montana in the GOAT discussion.
By the time the game made it to overtime, there was no way the Patriots would lose. Special teams captain called “heads” for the coin toss, as he always does, but unless Falcons offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan (who has since been hired as the new head coach of the San Francisco 49ers) finally figured out to just feed the ball to Julio Jones like he’s LeBron in crunch time, which he did not do all game, the Patriots would have stopped a cold, suddenly not ready for the moment offense and gotten the ball back and scored. Even if the Falcons managed to stop the Pats on 4th and Goal, they would have had to take the ball out from the one, and the Pats defense would have gotten the ball back and only needed a field goal to win.
For years, I have been saying that I would love to see a Super Bowl go into overtime, just not in a year when the Patriots are in it for stress management purposes. But when it got to the point that my team was in the first ever overtime Super Bowl, all the stress was gone. They had all the momentum, and they were the team that had been there before. Instead it became a question of who would be the one to make the Super Bowl ending score. It was almost Martellus Bennett, who got interfered with near the goal line on one play and was targeted with a end zone throw that could have been Atlanta’s version of the Malcolm Butler interception at the end of Super Bowl XLIX. Instead it was James White, who did not have a rushing touchdown in the regular season, and who was inactive for the Super Bowl against Seattle two years ago who punched it in, breaking the plane of the end zone just enough to end the game, putting the Patriots ahead in a game they never led.
This game also proved the validity of some of the other football philosophies Bill Belichick & Co. have employed for years. The Falcons had greater elite, high-end talent, while the Patriots place a greater value on depth. While both teams have elite QBs, Matt Ryan has more elite weapons at his disposal in Jones, Freeman, Taylor Gabriel and Mohamed Sanu. Brady has Rob Gronkowski, the greatest player in the history of the tight end position, but did not have him most of the season, including the playoffs, and the Patriots went undefeated without him because Brady makes guys like Julian Edelman (whose insane late-game catch was indefensibly not mentioned until now), Danny Amendola, Chris Hogan, and Martellus Bennett. Patriots players are notoriously frustrating to use in fantasy football because you never know, for example, which running back will be getting the bulk of the carries. If LeGarrette Blount struggles early (as he did), then Dion Lewis or James White could have a big game, and game to game, that is tough to predict. The same is true on defense, where Belichick traded Chandler Jones to the Cardinals in the offseason and Jamie Collins to the Browns during the season, and got better. Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia would rather have a deep rotation of guys who can play than a small handful of elite players, who could just as easily get hurt or get tired (the way Atlanta’s defense had to play twice as many snaps as their offense did in the Super Bowl) and not be there for them when they are needed most. It’s frustrating to watch your team consistently trade down at the draft, going for quantity over quality, but it is hard to argue with that method when they are in seven of the last 16 Super Bowls.
Ultimately, coming back from 28-3, and winning the first OT Super Bowl was the perfect way to end the nonsense of the last two years with Deflategate. The thing I am most excited about is that the Patriots were accused of a stupid thing that should not have been a big deal at all, and they reacted by winning two of the last three Super Bowls, the commissioner tried to bury them like he did the New Orleans Saints by fining the team, taking away draft picks, and suspending the greatest player of this generation for twice as many games as he suspended a guy who knocked his fiance unconscious on camera, and the team responded by winning everything anyway. There is nothing better than that. Nothing.
I have been privileged to be a fan of the best, most consistently competitive franchise in the National Football League just because of where I grew up. The New England Patriots have been the San Antonio Spurs of the NFL, if there were no Lakers, Heat or Warriors in the league who could hang with them for more than three of four years before having to rebuild. Tom Brady and Bill Belichick, by working together since 2000, have firmly cemented themselves in the “Greatest QB of All Time” and “Greatest Head Coach of All Time” discussions, respectively, winning four Super Bowls in six trips, reaching the AFC Championship Game each of the last five seasons, missing the playoffs only three times (including Brady’s rookie year when he was still Drew Bledsoe’s backup and the 2008 season when Bernard Pollard wrecked Brady’s knee in the first quarter of the first game), and last had a losing season when Bill Clinton was still President (again, Brady’s rookie year). With great success comes a lack of excitement until the Patriots inevitably get to the games in January, however, but this season is shaping up to be more interesting than usual, and it’s not even August yet.
For other teams, for lesser teams, NFL training camp is a fresh start. It’s a time to see if the new young quarterback is ready for the big stage. It’s a time to see if the expensive free agent acquisitions can be the missing piece the team needed, and if they have what it takes to put them over the top (spoiler alert: they aren’t and don’t). The Patriots have been so good for so long that they are boring in the summer. It’s not a bad thing, but it’s true. Rather spend big on top tier free agents, the Pats will take chances on cheaper, big name players past their prime, and they usually seem to get cut or have little impact. Adrian Wilson. Leon Washington. Joey Galloway. Torry Holt. Reggie Wayne. Chad
Ochocinco Johnson. Free agent misses are an afterthought when they do not cost much and you draft as well and in volume as the Patriots do. There are dozens of personnel second guesses that can be made about the Patriots in the Bill Belichick Era, but it’s hard to argue with the year in and year out results.
Bill Belichick has the Patriots so well coached, that it’s actually made it harder for me to enjoy NFL games in which I have no rooting interest, which used to be my favorite way to spend my Sundays. Even the other good teams can be frustrating because they make the kind of mistakes that the Patriots so rarely make. The 2011 Super Bowl between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Green Bay Packers, two of the more successful franchises of the last ten years, and two of the ultimate “well coordinated, but poorly coached” teams in any given year, was a sloppily played game, ultimately won by Aaron Rodgers and the Packers, where I felt like the Pats missed out. Had they beaten the Jets at home in the Divisional Round that year, they could have beaten either of those teams. Last year’s Thanksgiving game between the Detroit Lions and the Philadelphia Eagles was another classic example. To be fair, these were two bad teams, but they were both projected to be better than they were last season. It was just a game of mistakes. Then-Eagles head coach Chip Kelly (who has since been fired by Philly and hired as the head coach of the San Francisco 49ers) was supposed to be a football innovator, and one of the smart, up-and-coming coaches who would be challenging Belichick for the “Best Coach” belt, but his team all last year was painful to watch, and I say that as someone who has been a Chip Kelly fan since he took over at the University of Oregon in 2009.
Even this season, with Tom Brady having to serve a four game suspension to start the regular season, Belichick has made is clear to almost everyone that there is no quarterback controversy between Brady and third year backup Jimmy Garoppolo. Jimmy G will be the starter the first four games, but Brady will be back for Week Five game against the Browns. Watch out, Cleveland. In the meantime, offensive players have to develop timing and chemistry with two QBs, but that’s nothing New England newcomer Martellus Bennett can’t handle.
While things didn’t go the Patriots’ way in the national nightmare that was Deflategate, with the NFL winning their appeal of the ruling from a lower court that got Brady’s suspension overturned last summer, at least now we never have to argue about air pressure in a football ever again. After the first four games of the season, Brady will be back, and we will be witness to his greatness once again. The preseason and the first four weeks of the regular season will be an interesting glimpse into what life after Brady will look like for the Patriots. Is Jimmy G the long-term answer? How does he stack up against the other QBs in the AFC? Will this be Steve Young replacing Joe Montana or Aaron Rodgers replacing Brett Favre, or will it be a more underwhelming succession plan like Brian Griese replacing John Elway? The core of the team, with the exception of Brady and Belichick, is young, and the future is bright in that regard, but if you don’t have a great quarterback or a great head coach, what do you really have in the modern NFL?
As usual, it’s still just August and September. The Patriots have had slow starts before, and that’s okay because they’re always there in January. The Patriots fan experience is hardly a joyful one. With expectations as high as they set for themselves every year, it was a tense ten years between Super Bowl wins. In 2015, being a Patriots fan was a joyous experience for the longest stretch since I was in high school. From Malcolm Butler’s Super Bowl clinching interception, until last May when Roger Goodell suspended Brady for four games for the stupidest controversy in the history of sports, it was actually fun to be a Pats fan (and it’s worth noting that no games were played during that time). When you win, it’s because you were supposed to, and when you lose the whole world wants to watch you suffer. The Pats were the first NFL dynasty in the age of Reddit threads and comments at the bottom of articles from ESPN or ProFootballTalk, so Patriots fans, like Spurs fans or Warriors fans or Blackhawks fans or Duke fans, get to see what everyone else thinks about them all the time. Steelers fans of the 70s and Niners fans of the 80s and even Cowboys fans of the 90s didn’t have to deal with that side of their team’s success. None of this is really changing with this Patriots season, but the new wrinkles in the annual storylines going into football season at least have me intrigued.
I haven’t written a blog post that was just about the NFL since the Patriots traded offensive guard Logan Mankins to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers during the preseason. After that, I went back to school, and one scandal after another got me less and less interested in the NFL. I love football, and I love the Patriots, but it had finally gotten to the point where the incompetence of the commissioner and the moral depravity of the league took me out of it. It’s a league that doesn’t care about the health of its players. Junior Seau gave twenty years of his life to the NFL, but killed himself before he could get into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility. The NFL is willing to overlook its concussion epidemic just as easily as its willing to overlook security footage in a casino elevator. It’s a miracle Roger Goodell didn’t make Seau’s family hold a press conference to apologize for tarnishing the NFL’s reputation, the way the Baltimore Ravens did with Jenae Rice. Then, the NFL found a scandal they could get behind because it was a scandal about nothing and they knew people are comfortable enough with the Patriots being villains.
The last two weeks for Patriots fans had been awful. Just hours after the Pats booked a trip to their seventh Super Bowl in my lifetime, accusations started swirling about the footballs being under-inflated in New England’s rout of the Colts in the AFC Championship Game. All of a sudden, the Patriots were cheaters again, with no hard evidence, and a narrative led by leaks to the media. Through all of it, Roger Goodell was hard to find, and when he did get in front of TV cameras, he didn’t pass up the opportunity to say nothing. If it wasn’t the Patriots, this would not have been a story. People love to hate the Patriots because of the success they have experienced since Robert Kraft hired Bill Belichick away from the AFC East division rival New York Jets in 2000. People love to hate the ones who always succeed. For all the problems the NFL had on and off the field this year, there could not have been a better ending, and I’m not just saying that because I’m a Patriots fan.
I wrote over the summer questioning how much Tom Brady had left in the tank. He’s an all time great, and in the discussion for Greatest of All Time, but when it goes, it goes. In Kansas City during the fourth week of the season, it looked like it went. I was at work and listening on the radio as the Patriots looked like a college team playing an NFL team (or at least a terrible team like the Jacksonville Jaguars or the Jets) when they were manhandled in every facet of the game in Arrowhead Stadium by the Kansas City Chiefs. The offensive line looked porous. The team missed Mankins and longtime offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia more than anyone realized, and Brady looked like a washed up has-been standing in the way of the future. Drafting Jimmy Garoppolo out of Eastern Illinois last spring opened the door to discussing life after Brady, and with that loss in Kansas City, it looked like that day would come sooner than expected. In hindsight, it was foolish to think that was the end. The most Garoppolo would contribute after that game was playing like Russell Wilson in practice in preparation for the Super Bowl, but after Kansas City, it seemed outrageous to even think about the playoffs. We just hoped we could win a game.
Bill Belichick elected not to channel Jim Mora in his presser after the loss to the Chiefs, and instead put out the most memorable quote of his illustrious career of saying as little as possible to the assembled media. “We’re on to Cincinnati.” They were ready for Cincinnati. Then they were ready for Buffalo. Then they were ready for the Jets. Then they were ready for Chicago. Then they were ready for Denver. Then they were ready for Indianapolis. Then they were ready for Detroit. Then they lost a close one in Green Bay, but by then they had established themselves as the top team in the AFC as the Denver Broncos and Peyton Manning were coming undone. They won in San Diego, and avenged their season opening loss to the Miami Dolphins before beating the Jets a second time and losing to the Buffalo Bills in the completely meaningless season finale. The Patriots seemed poised for another deep playoff run, but their Divisional Round opponent would be no easy task.
The Patriots always seem to have trouble with the Baltimore Ravens. Baltimore had their share of struggles this season, having to release Ray Rice after his domestic violence incident became a viral video that the NFL had apparently never seen before TMZ showed it to everyone, and it took all sixteen games to make the playoffs. So much for getting home field advantage throughout the playoffs. The Broncos got an easier game in the form of the Indianapolis Colts, and the Pats had to play the resilient Ravens. They were down by 14 points and things looked bad, but that’s when the Patriots got creative. The play of the decade came when Brady threw a lateral pass to wide receiver and former Kent State quarterback Julian Edelman. The split second when every Pats fan realized Edelman was going to throw it changed the tone of that game and the tone of the playoffs. Edelman’s first NFL pass was a completion to Danny Amendola for a touchdown, and the crowd at Gillette Stadium erupted. The Patriots did their job, even if their job included receivers throwing to receivers, and running backs lining up as linemen to confuse the defense. Ravens head coach John Harbaugh cried to the media, and Tom Brady told him to read the rule book. The creative ineligible receiver formations were not a Belichick invention. Chip Kelly has used them at the University of Oregon as well as with the Philadelphia Eagles, and Nick Saban used formations like that with the University of Alabama this season.
Where New England did their job, Denver did not. The Broncos lost their home playoff game to the Colts is what may have been Peyton Manning’s last real shot at winning a Super Bowl. The personal rivalry between Tom Brady and Peyton Manning, which began with Brady’s first NFL start, may be ending for good, and while both are great and both were champions, Brady put himself ahead of Manning with this year’s playoff run. It’s clear that Brady intends to go out with a bang, not to say he is finished at the age of 37, but whether Manning retired now or hangs on another year, he is much more likely to go out with a whimper. Manning is a great regular season player and maybe the best pure passer in the history of the game, but Brady has a little more of the old fashioned gunslinger in his makeup, pumping his fist after every big first down like the young kid who stunned the Oakland Raiders in the snow in 2002. When Peyton Manning fell apart against his former team, the Patriots were ready for a rematch with the Colts. Deflated balls or not, Andrew Luck had replaced Manning in Indy, but he was still out of Tom Brady’s league.
After two weeks of accusation, leaks, and scientific lectures from both sides of the issue, we finally had a football game, and it more than lived up to the hype. We had the Patriots, a perennial contender with an all time great coach and an all time great quarterback who had not won a title in a decade, and the Seattle Seahawks, the defending Super Bowl champions with a fun-loving coach (an unusual characteristic in the NFL or college football, two levels where Pete Carroll has thrived), an all time great defense, and a great young quarterback who is only getting better. In two decades as an NFL owner, Robert Kraft has only hired two head coaches: Pete Carroll and Bill Belichick. While Carroll did not work out with New England, he ad a great run at USC before making a triumphant return to the professional level with Seattle. It was a scoreless first quarter, and tied at the half. The Patriots moved the ball well, but Brady threw a bad interception. Russell Wilson and the Seahawks had a slow start on offense, but found a way to score quickly at the end of the second quarter. Halftime of Super Bowl XLIV was the tensest moment set to a Katy Perry soundtrack since the battle scene from The Interview.
The second half got off to a slow start for the Patriots, and the Seahawks played the third quarter like champions, but the Patriots stayed in it. While Richard Sherman was gloating on the sideline, the Pats chipped away. Brady and the offense came alive in the fourth quarter, with touchdowns from Danny Amendola and Julian Edelman, and then the Seahawks got the ball back down by four points.
“I’ve seen this movie before.” I said aloud. Super Bowls XLII and XLVI ended with New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning marching down the field. When 19-0 was on the line, David Tyree made a nearly impossible catch off his helmet. In 2012, Mario Manningham made a catch just as impressive on the sideline to get the drive going. Both of those Super Bowls ended with the the Giants raising the Vince Lombardi Trophy instead of the Patriots. When Jermaine Kearse kicked up the ball that undrafted rookie Malcolm Butler knocked away, it was happening all over again. Seattle was going to score. There was no way they wouldn’t. All I could hope for was enough time for Brady to launch another score. For all the success Boston teams have had since 2002, we have had out share of devastation as well. In addition to David Tyree and Mario Manningham, we have had Aaron Boone’s home run off Tim Wakefield, Ron Artest’s shooting in the 2010 NBA Finals, and the 17 second period of the 2013 Stanley Cup Final that I still refuse to watch. Another ne of those moments was happening. It was just a matter of time.
It’s a bit of a blur now. The way it ended was so surreal. Dont’a Hightower made a great tackle to keep Marshawn Lynch out of the end zone, and the broadcast team of Al Michaels and Cris Collinsworth both thought Belichick should let the Seahawks score to give Brady more time for the comeback attempts. Instead, Belichick let the clock run down and Pete Carroll put the ball in Russell Wilson’s hands. Malcolm Butler, who bobbled the ball into Kearse’s hands moments before made an incredible interceptions to seal the game for the Patriots. I think I saw it when it happened, but it did not register right away. Then I was standing up and laughing and screaming. It had happened. They survived. The Patriots were champions again.
With the 2015 playoffs, Tom Brady did more than pass Peyton Manning as the greatest quarterback of his generation. He also passed John Elway by starting his sixth career Super Bowl, tied Joe Montana as a three time Super Bowl MVP, and tied Montana and Terry Bradshaw as a four time Super Bowl champion as a starting QB. Brady and Belichick reestablished themselves as the Duncan and Popovich of football, continuing the success that began fifteen years ago. With all due respect to Jimmy Garoppolo, the Patriots will never have a better quarterback than Tom Brady. The best we can hope for with Jimmy G is that he becomes the Ray Bourque to Brady’s Bobby Orr, the Steve Young to his Joe Montana, the Larry Bird to his Bill Russell, or the Carl Yastrziemski to Brady’s Ted Williams. There is still a chance for greatness in the future, but nothing like what we are seeing now. Enjoy it. We don’t know how much longer it will last.
The best part of the night was the trophy presentation where Kurt Warner, who the Patriots beat to start this run of dominance walking through a gauntlet of newly crowned champions with their trophy, and then Robert Kraft refusing to acknowledge Roger Goodell on the podium. Everyone hates the Patriots, and the Patriots don’t care.The conversation about deflated footballs was dominated by sports pundits who have a reason to hate the Pats: Kurt Warner, Marshall Faulk, Jerry Rice, Troy Aikman, Trent Dilfer, Ray Lewis, Tony Dungy, Bill Polian, and the list goes on. They just hate us ’cause they ain’t us. It’s the fourth Super Bowl victory by the Patriots in this century, and then ninth Boston championship in that span, and it still hasn’t gotten old. They did their job. On to the parade!